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Leadership at Every Level: Appreciative Inquiry in Education

by Rich Henry

"Appreciative Inquiry is an approach … based on strengths rather than weaknesses, on a vision of what is possible rather than an analysis of what is not." --David Cooperrider

What we focus on increases.

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is based on the realization that improvement is more engaging, more fun, and more effective when the focus is on what is already working rather than what is broken. This AI principle is inherent in the best of human relationships, and most of us have had an experience of an appreciative moment that has changed our lives in ways both little and large.

Take a moment right now and remember a time when someone really believed in you and saw your strengths. It could have been a teacher, a family member, or friend who recognized your unique gifts. How did their faith and expectations affect you and your growth? As you notice how you feel as a result of remembering this important part of your personal story, you access a dynamic state that emboldens change. The process of accessing this state, "locating the energy for change," is what Appreciative Inquiry is about.

AI offers an approach and methods that encourage breaking through to new levels of consciousness. By recognizing and amplifying successes and strengths that already exist, we create a new image of the future that is so compelling that we consciously and unconsciously move toward it; we make decisions and take actions that create it. AI allows us to move beyond those relentless problems we have been working so diligently to solve.

The Swiss psychotherapist, Carl Jung said, "All of the greatest and most important problems of life are fundamentally insoluble.. They can never be solved, but only outgrown… Some higher or wider interest appeared on the horizon and through this broadening of outlook the insoluble problem lost its urgency. It was not solved logically in its own terms but faded when confronted with a new and stronger life urge." AI is an important approach that facilitates this process of growing out of our problems.

Appreciative Inquiry emerged in 1980. David Cooperrider, a doctoral candidate at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland Ohio, was conducting research into organizational behavior with the Cleveland Clinic. David observed that when interviews focused on the problems at the clinic, his subjects' energy decreased and they felt demoralized. When the interviews focused on what was working, they exhibited increased energy and enthusiasm for their work. Cooperrider also noticed the same impact on those conducting the interviews. When the focus was on problems, the result of the inquiry was a vicious circle spiraling downward. When the focus was on what's working and what's valuable, the result was a virtuous circle spiraling upward. "When I do good I feel good; when I feel good, I do good."

Dr. Cooperrider's seminal work has lead to powerful and comprehensive growth in the research, understanding, and practice of Appreciative Inquiry. AI is applicable to every kind of situation. It has been instrumental in the complicated task of bridging differences among interfaith participants in the creation of the United Religions Initiative, whose purpose is to end religious violence. This initiative, started in 1998, has grown to include thousands of members from 47 countries representing 88 religions (

In a very different example, the U.S. Navy used Appreciative Inquiry for a four-day strategic planning summit in Dec. 2001. The summit brought together 260 personnel from across the Navy, seamen to admirals, to consider how to create "Bold and Enlightened Leaders at every Level: Forging an Empowered Culture of Excellence." Specific outcomes included 30 pilot projects. Many regional Navy AI summits have followed. Admiral Vern Clark, Chief of Naval Operations, has said, "Appreciative inquiry is a way to rediscover and tap into our core strengths and highest potentials. It also helps us develop our self-talk in a constructive way and encourages us to bring out our best qualities in serving this institution. Appreciative inquiry is a method that helps us develop the goals and dreams that support the future of our Navy." (

AI is also making inroads into the important work of education. AI's fundamental approach of seeking to discover, honor, and amplify what works, the life-giving elements, is a "system" process that works at all levels, with individual students, one-on-one student-teacher relationships, classrooms, schools, school districts and communities. Although AI's fundamental orientation is consistent, there are a wide range of specific methods and techniques for different contexts. Following are two examples from education, one the individual student and classroom learning community end of the continuum, and one from a school district-wide context.

Ohio has implemented "high stakes" testing, meaning no student will graduate without passing the complete battery of proficiency tests. Shaw High School, located in urban northeast Ohio, has 1100 students. Shaw's graduation rate was less than 65% and less than 40% of the class of 2003 had passed the mandated tests. Dr. Charleyse Pratt, an educational consultant and AI practitioner, created a pilot project for the summer of 2001. She identified students who had failed the exam at least three times and whose teachers gave them "no hope of graduating." 25 such students were invited to participate in the 5-week, 5 hours/day program. 22 students accepted the invitation. The "Shaw Scholars Mastery Program" integrated Appreciative Inquiry into every aspect of a rigorous program design incorporating math, science, language, and study skills. The program was student centered, using AI approaches to discover and amplify the abilities each student already possessed. At the end of the program, 19 of the 22 passed the tests on the first try, and all said, "I'm going to college."

Two of the most significant insights from this pilot project are that years of failure can be turned around by a mere 5 weeks of success, and that the program had no focus whatsoever on "teaching to the test," the all too common (and rarely effective) reaction to test pressure. This extremely successful pilot has been expanded into a three-year Global Leadership and Excellence in Academics, Mathematics, and Science (GLEAMS) project.

West Springfield (MA) Public Schools (WSPS) used AI for strategic planning to transform school culture and increase student achievement. In April 2002, faculty, staff, grade 6-12 students, parents, and community members learned how to conduct AI interviews. The interview questions were:

1) Think of a time when you had a really terrific experience with WSPS. Tell the story;

2) Without being modest, what do you value about yourself, your greatest strengths, and how do your strengths help you to be an important member of WSPS and the community?;

3) What do you see as the core value of WSPS?;

4) If you had three wishes for WSPS, what would those wishes be?

Over the spring and summer, interviews were conducted with stakeholders in preparation for the summit to be convened in the fall. In September, 650 people from all stakeholder constituencies came together to create a community that would collaborate through the Appreciative Inquiry 4D Cycle to: Discover – look for the best of what is, Dream – imagine the best we can become, Design – create an action strategy and plan to achieve the vision, and Deliver – co-create the future.

This summit unleashed energy and created these results: a shared positive experience; strengthened networks in and across schools; commitment and ownership at the school level to follow-up on projects; community awareness and desire to partner; conversations about hope; dialogue across functions, ages, experiences, and boundaries; and renewed energy and commitment to the schools and the children. In the words of the case study, "There is a great need in our school systems today to re-Form. This re-Formation can occur with a strength based whole systems change approach that taps into the answers that are in the system.. The AI SUMMIT provides proof that the answer does not come from outside experts but from within what is best in their own community." (Rhodes, Hinrichs, and Schiller)

An emerging international initiative to apply AI principles and practices in education is the Positive Change Corps (PCC). PCC is comprised of AI practitioners and educators who "support schools and youth in realizing and building their capacity by using strength-based and appreciative whole systems approaches to promote schools and youth as agents of community and world benefit." The Feb. 2003 issue of the AI Practitioner, a newsletter for the AI community, was dedicated to education projects. Copies are available: For more information about Positive Change Corps, contact the director, Marge Schiller:, or this author:

When working with individual students, large-scale school systems, and everything in between, Appreciative Inquiry provides an orientation and methods to build on the best of the past and present to create the best possible future.

Resources is the web address for the Appreciative Inquiry Commons, the official home and nexus for the AI community. It comprises many stories, documents, and links. is a link to the introduction of a book by Charles Elliott, An Introduction to Appreciative Inquiry: Locating the Energy for Change. This introduction tells two powerful stories of teenage boys heading for trouble and contrasts the problem solving and the appreciative approaches. In addition, the entire book is available as a free download from this site. links to ERIC (Educational Resources Information Center) "Appreciative Inquiry - Trends and Issues Alert #41." This report provides an overview and bibliography for many of the academic journal articles.

The Center for Learning Connections (CLC), part of Highline Community College in Des Moines WA, is a focal point for Appreciative Inquiry in education, non-profits, and the public sector. CLC is offering an "Introduction to Appreciative Inquiry in Education" workshop, Dec. 1-3 2003, in La Conner WA. Information:

About the Author

Rich Henry is founder and president of UnifiedField Associates, a consulting firm dedicated to helping organizations create their best possible futures through appreciative and strength-based approaches. He is especially interested in applying appreciative and strength-based methods for improvement of education, and is a national and international presenter and facilitator. He has taught at every level from 8th grade through graduate school and has significant experience in education administration, most recently as Dean of Information Resources at Bellevue Community College in Washington. He can be contacted at, 425-452-1134, or UnifiedField Associates, 241 130th Ave NE, Bellevue WA 98005.

© August 2003 New Horizons for Learning

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